Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The role (and myths) of storytelling in video games

As I have been told by Kenton Low of New Media BC (whom I had the great pleasure of meeting last week), there are three main reasons why people play games:
  1. For the sake of intellectual exercise and discovery (such as puzzle games)
  2. To satisfy a perpetual need to compete and win (think 'deathmatch')
  3. For the sake of the story that the game tells

It is very easy to think examples of games that satisfy the first two needs. The third one, however, is somewhat rare. For me it is somewhat astonishing that the power of video games as a storytelling medium has been underappreciated so much. Given the high potential of interaction and immersion native to video games, one would think it is an obvious improvement over film, where there is no real interaction between the passive audience and the content on display.

Greater is my amusement when people discuss, with a certain fringe attitude, whether a game can make you cry, or inspire, or impart serious wisdom on you, and whatnot. I say amusing, because people who think the answer lies in the future, are the people who are ignorant of what has already been achieved on that frontier with some very fine examples of storytelling.

Think of games like Planescape Torment: one of the best examples of storytelling for its narrative power and deeply philosophical essence. Think Braid, a puzzle game with a very personal, very humane story to tell, which transforms the game itself from simple block pushing into a genuine emotional experience. Think Portal, another puzzle game that keeps you constantly looking forward to the next level, just to hear the next piece of GLaDOS' crazy monologues.

The cake is a lie, obviously, but the power of storytelling is not.

Myths of Storytelling
  • Storytelling only belongs in roleplaying games: It is true that a story is most integral to the RPG genre (although the Diablo franchize deviates from that). Yet all genres can benefit from good writing. Braid and Portal, as mentioned above, are two obvious examples of games where the experience is much enhanced by a good story.
  • A focus on storytelling needs the player to read too much stuff on screen: A misconception related to the first one. While certain roleplaying games revolve around extensive dialogues that require the player to choose what to say, this does not need to apply to other categories. Half-life delivered a pretty good storytelling experience without a single line to Gordon Freeman's name. Different genres can use different game mechanics to advance the storyline.
  • You need a hero saving the world/galaxy for a good story: More often than not, this actually hurts the immersion factor of a game. You are thrown into a strange new digital world with so many things to explore and immerse yourself in, but no. There is no time. Evil armies are marching. But of course, you are the only one who can stop them. Your typical interactions with the game world characters usually result in a) Them not believing your pitch about evil armies, and continuing to plow the fields as if nothing's happening, or, b) them believing you and sending you alone to deal with it, again continuing to plow the fields. In any case, what you end up with is an experience utterly detached from the game world you were hoping to be a part of. In most cases, for all we know, your hero might as well be a severely delusional village-idiot who hallucinates such evil armies marching, much to the amusement of farmers who plow their fields under any circumstance.
  • A good story needs to be non-linear: Not really. Sure, a non-linear story experience can add a nice touch when pulled off well enough, but a linear story can just as well do the job if it's interesting enough. In fact it may be a better idea to stick to a linear story, rather than a half-hearted attempt at creating an illusion of choice.
  • A good story takes a lot of writing talent: Well, yes. Then again, I'm fairly confident that the kind of money that buys Kiefer Sutherland's voice or Tricia Helfer's acting, would be more than enough to employ top notch writing talent, which would add a lot more value to your game than celebrity appearances.
  • Every story needs to be about a fight between good and evil: Your audience is not limited to the Power Rangers fans anymore. Black and white morality is overdone to death. Fresh approaches with morally ambigious or flawed characters are ruling the day. Look at Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, or House MD. We need more of that stuff in video games too. We need intellectually mature content. Preferably such that does not think being crass equals being mature content.

Well, this is all I can think of at the time. I might post additions later. Let me finish this one with another great example (for me, at least) of storytelling.

Freespace 2, possibly the best space simulation game ever made, also had a pretty masterfully crafted story:
  • for its emphasis on a rather ordinary character rather than a special one,
  • for its empasis, not on a fairy tale victory, but on a gloomy, gritty struggle for survival,
  • for the way it gave the sense of epicness in size and scale without resorting to cliches,
  • and for its appreciation of mystery and leaving things to the imagination.
That was 10 years ago.

Can a video game make you cry? Can a publisher be taught the potential of their own medium?


Kayo said...

In library-land, we talk about video games a lot because of their capability to tell a story.

I think you are absolutely right about the misconception that good storytelling always require a lot of reading. A good video game will tell a story, enable the user to be immersed in a story/world without lots of heavy reading. Why can't they have more games like that?

We talk about video games a lot especially in the public library context because it not only enhances the 'traditional' literacy- ie: reading, but it also promotes other types of literacy, namely "operational literacy". Most people take this form of literacy for granted. Operational literacy is knowing what to do in a particular situation. How to read a map, how to aim and shoot a gun, etc. For instance, children from a young age learn how to orient themselves in a foreign land by looking at maps in video games. How else do you learn to read a map? Why else would you learn to read a map when you are a child?

Anyway, the point is that there are lots and lots of opportunities for storytelling in video games and like you, I'd like to see more of it.

Also, if you can convince all of the educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, universities and libraries to have a collection of video games, think of how much revenue this is going to generate! Librarians are certainly beginning to see the values in video games... maybe game designers should design more games that has an emphasis on storytelling, and market these to schools... I think it's time that people collaborate from different fields to make good video games that will enhance literacy and also make lots of money.

Here is a little blog article about a study "Understanding the Power of New Literacies Through Video Game Play".


Seriously, you should look into educational applications for video games. I think there's lots of money to be made in that industry.

Alan Johansen said...

Enjoyed your article Taylan - found it from LinkedIn/BlogLink.

It might be interesting to take the top games on each platform and classify them into each of your 3 categories. Not sure it answers or opens more questions e.g.
1) People may play the same game for different reasons --
2) We can only loosely infer consumer preference - it might be more of an availability issue. e.g Not enough games in category #3

How would you compare the motivations of play identified in Daedalus Project with the 3 you outlined?

Taylan said...


I have to admit, I was not thinking of MMORPGs when I was writing up that post. I read the post and even did the survey on motivations. Pretty good insights.

I think the distinction between MMORPGs and other video games is an important one in terms of motivations. The former is essentially a social network, in addition to being a game. That attribute alone can be a motivation to play a MMOG.

I also agree that people may play the same game for different reasons. Perhaps that's the reason why some games perform as well as they do. One might play "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" for its story, or for the sake of exploration of the game world. You can play "Call of Duty" for its multiplayer competition, or its cinematic single player experience.

Interesting to think how that might run counter to the conventional marketing wisdom, where you would be advised to create a stand alone product for a single need segment, and steer away from trying to be all things to all people. Perhaps in video games that wisdom does not necessarily apply.